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Women's access to land in Nicaragua - Sara Ceci


Access to land is crucial to agricultural development and food security. It is of central concern in those economies where the agricultural sector contributes significantly to overall employment and GDP (Gross Domestic Product). In order to be productive, the agricultural worker's most basic need is to be able to access and use the land. Yet land security is often far from certain, being subject to cultural, social, economic and institutional factors. Moreover, these factors tend to alienate women disproportionately from exercising control over the land they work. In the Nicaraguan context, any discussion of land access for women has to start by examining the legislative, cultural and institutional factors that interpose between women and the various new rights to land emerging from agrarian changes over the last 30 years.

This article looks at agrarian reforms implemented over the last three decades by successive governments - including the granting of title to land, legislation on joint titling, and other changes in land law; land distribution programmes; and at what is happening as a result of the emergence of a commercial market in land in Nicaragua following economic liberalization - in order to assess the specific impact each has had on women.


In Nicaragua, as in many countries signing up to the various United Nations resolutions concerning women over the last three decades, a number of steps have been taken to remove institutional obstacles that traditionally prevented women from gaining access to resources such as land. It is important to point out that women's restricted access to land and other natural resources is part of a wider lack of equality in public and private life so that removing the institutional obstacles to land access for women not necessarily remove the accompanying economic, social and cultural bars.

A field research was carried out in Nicaragua in order to understand if changes in legislation, institutional reforms, land distribution and titling programmes have been sufficient to increase women's opportunity to own and control land and other collateral, resources and services. An additional purpose of this work is to answer the question if increased women's access to land (through titling and land market) led to changes in women's land use and management.

The consultation process led to the definition of the institutional frame under which the land reform process has been placed and to the revision of legal regulations and institutional changes, which took place recently. It also set out to understand the current dynamics of the rural sector such as ownership conflicts, informal land market transactions and title legalisation process. Moreover, it analysed the role of other factors, such as cultural attitudes of the civil servants, in preventing or constraining women's access to land.

Field research also led to record changes regarding women's participation in decisionmaking both within the household and the community, women's income opportunity and access to resources. It sets out to know and quantify, whenever possible, the conditions of women's access to and control over land, and their situation regarding property rights. Therefore, this work investigated the problematic of joint ownership and titling as well as the situation of conflicts over property rights.

However, the current dynamics of the rural sector need to be taken into consideration when assessing whether women's access to land in Nicaragua has improved as a result. Ownership conflicts, informal land market transactions, title legalization, the attitude of civil servants, women's unfamiliarity with accessing financial and legal resources, and their limited participation in household and community decisionmaking have all worked against women being able to realise their potential rights to own land.

This article explores the ways in which Nicaraguan women's land rights have received greater governmental and legal recognition over the past 30 years, while still facing difficulties in implementation owing to the gap between formal law and customary practice. It also examines the impact on Nicaraguan women of the recent market liberalization, which has facilitated land purchase and sale for those who can access credit and banking facilities.

There have been sweeping changes in Nicaragua's agrarian context over the past three decades. Agrarian reforms under Somoza in the 1960s and 1970s and in the Sandinista period from 1979 to 1990 were followed by agrarian counter-reform from 1990 to 1997, and now the current phase of market liberalization fosters the emergence of a market for buying and selling land. This article highlights the ways in which Nicaraguan women's current access to land has been impacted by these wider changes in society as well as by the specific steps taken to improve women's land rights.

Determining factors: legislation, institutions and customary law

Despite women's contribution to the agrarian economy, the truth is that men and women rarely have equal access to land. Legislative, cultural and institutional mechanisms are all used to restrict women's rights to land, leading to this marked gender inequality in the land tenure system.

The laws that formally determine women's access to land are related to national legislation and the international legal framework, while cultural mechanisms used to exclude women are related to institutional practices and social customs that in reality restrict women's access to land.

Legislative context for women's right to land

National legal framework

An analysis of legislative factors which deprive women of the right to own or use land generally begins by examining the rules and regulations contained in national constitutions, civil codes, family codes and agrarian legislation, as these have a bearing on land tenure and distribution of ownership.

National constitutions almost always contain rules and regulations, which in theory guarantee equal rights for men and women - even if, in most countries, women have not yet begun to lay claim to and effectively enjoy the same rights as men.

Civil codes set out the rules concerning women's civil capacity to exercise their legal rights. In other words, civil codes determine women's access to land in practice, by qualifying their rights to own property, carry out market transactions, and take on credit liabilities.

Family codes include such areas of legislation as succession or inheritance[21] rights, parental authority, and provisions for marriage, all of which can determine the capacity of women to inherit, own, dispose of, or control the use of a family resource such as land. In many countries where inheritance is patrilineal and patriarchal cultural patterns give preference to male heirs, men and women are not treated equally under inheritance legislation and women are less likely to inherit land.

Agrarian legislation also has an impact on women's land access, especially in countries that have undergone recent agrarian reform, as many have in Latin America. Land distribution and titling programmes in some countries in recent decades have attempted to ensure that women are recognised as agricultural producers in agrarian and civil legislation governing land tenure and distribution. Yet it is usually the head of the family unit - a designation women rarely get in practice unless there is no male in the household - who gets the right to benefit from such programmes.

International legal framework

Between 1975 and 1995 the United Nations and the international community held four world conferences on women. Each resulted in recommendations that the Member States adopt legislative and policy measures to promote women's access to land and other necessary resources, with the aim of enabling women to participate in the production process on an equal footing with men. The recommendation, in Paragraphs 37 and 46 to 48 of the World Action Plan, to provide constitutional and legislative guarantees of non-discrimination and equal rights for men and women was approved by United Nations Member States at the first World Conference on Women held in Mexico City in 1975[22].

That first step in creating an international legal framework to promote and recognise women's rights underpins a number of articles that relate specifically to women's right to land. Key provisions include:

Aspects of customary law relating to women's right to land

Legal definitions and rules of law are rarely neutral, however. Legal systems almost inevitably incorporate ideological and cultural factors intrinsic to the society, and it is often the silent working of these factors that can prevent women from exercising their right to land.

In many countries these factors are reflected in practices and customs closely related to a sexual division of labour whereby men are assigned the productive (visible, paid) role whilst, traditionally, women's role is more closely associated with domestic (invisible, unpaid) responsibilities and reproductive functions, with their productive role played down.

So although in many countries progress has been made in recognising women's rights in law, in institutional mechanisms and in the operational instruments through which agrarian reform has been applied, women's access to land and control of property often remains restricted by beliefs, practices and customs which prevent recognition of their role in the production process and dictate that control over property forms no part of women's identity.

Other institutional factors

In addition to being apparent in the statutory and legal framework and in social stereotypes and cultural patterns, disregard for women's productive work also gives rise to institutional obstacles. The lack of gender-based general data, the lack of upto- date, gender-based cadastral data, the absence or paucity of institutional mechanisms and development policies which respond to gender-differentiated demands, requirements and priorities, and the preponderance of public officials who are unaware of this situation, are some of the institutional constraints preventing women from being recognized as candidates for land allocation, agrarian reform, and associated rural development programmes.

Women and the rural context in Nicaragua: general profile

Since 1990, Nicaragua has been implementing an economic stabilization and structural adjustment policy aimed at market liberalization. This policy has enabled Nicaragua to confront the major imbalances of the previous period and to lay the groundwork for growth. (UNDP 2000) However, Nicaragua is still the second-poorest country on the American continent, with a per capita GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of about US$430. (Ocón 1998)

The agricultural sector continues to be crucial to the EAP (Economically Active Population) and to GDP, primarily cultivating coffee, sugar, bananas, cassava, sesame and basic grains for export. The agricultural sector in 2000 generated 27 percent of GDP and provided employment for 43 percent of the EAP. Data contained in the ECLAC (Economic survey of Latin America and the Caribbean) study on Nicaragua for 1999 - 2000 showed that the effects of hurricane Mitch on production infrastructure contributed to the decline of the livestock and fishery sectors (ECLAC 2000).

Poverty levels in Nicaragua have increased in recent years. Between 1993 and 1996, the number of poor urban households rose from 71.11 to 72.2 percent, and poor rural households rose from 91.33 to 96.0 percent. Poverty levels are much higher in rural areas, where 76.6 percent of households are in a state of chronic poverty as against 36 percent of urban households. (Ocón 1998) The economic crisis has forced more and more family members into the labour market in an effort to obtain additional sources of income. Women are increasingly joining the labour force - in 1999 women accounted for 36 percent of the EAP.

Nicaragua's Central Bank and Statistical Institute do not yet sort by gender the most significant figures concerning women's contribution to the national economy. As a result, it is difficult to compile data to measure women's contribution to the economy and gauge the effectiveness of policies designed to promote women's progress.

However, the findings of a 1997 FIDEG (Fundación Internacional para el Desafío Económico y Global) survey on women's role in the Nicaraguan economy revealed that women's economic contribution in the productive and reproductive spheres is considerable. Data show that women contribute 40 percent of the wealth produced in the country, in addition to their unpaid contribution to work in the home, which would amount to 23 percent of GDP if it were valued in economic terms.

Despite the significance of rural women's economic contribution to the life of the household and that of the nation, indicators show that a large number live in extreme poverty and isolation. The fecundity rate in Nicaragua is double the Latin American average. Extremely poor women have on average more than six children, whereas those who are less poor have an average of two. A study by CMyDR (the Interinstitutional Committee on Rural Women) of the situation in Nicaragua revealed that rural women have little access to education and that this contrasts significantly with the urban picture. 44.7 percent of rural females over ten years of age are illiterate as compared with 17.3 percent in the towns; 16 percent of rural females complete primary education only, due to the fact that they begin their working life (productive and reproductive) at an early age. The same study showed that 19 percent of rural women are heads of households comprising about six persons.

Productive work - reproductive work

Social profiles of rural women tend to conceal the variety of activities in which they are involved - not least agricultural production, processing and marketing - and continue to disregard their role as producers.

Women have a decisive role in agricultural production and food security: on the smaller farms, women not only do roughly 40 percent of the agricultural work, especially basic grain production, but also have responsibility for rearing and marketing small livestock. They additionally carry water and wood, (Galan 1998) tend the garden and the animals, sow and harvest crops; process the food and market the produce; care for and bring up their children; and cook.

Many women also join the paid labour force in commercial agriculture, on a temporary or permanent basis, or work as traders or artisans in the informal sector.

Work based in or around the family unit is the sole responsibility of the household's women and girls, from the age of seven years. The time a woman spends in reproductive activities varies between 17 and 19 hours a day. (OTR/Unidad de género 1999) Rural women are the main providers of food for their children and, often, for the whole family. Unpaid household work is not included in rural EAP statistics so the figures do not reflect the true situation, perpetuating and reinforcing women's social exclusion.

Agrarian context, gender and right to land in Nicaragua over the past 30 years

Constitutional rights and their impact on Nicaraguan women

Nicaragua's first step on the path towards formal recognition of women's rights was to ratify CEDAW, the United Nations Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, in 1981. By 1987, Nicaragua had adopted a constitution that explicitly guaranteed equal rights for men and women. (Article 109)

In ratifying CEDAW, Nicaragua and the other signatory countries took on the international commitment to establish and strengthen gender units in agricultural institutions and national offices dedicated to women's issues. The Women's Office was set up in 1983, followed by INIM (the Nicaraguan Women's Institute) in 1987. CMyDR (the Inter-institutional Committee for Women and Rural Development) was later established by Presidential Decree No.57/1997, aiming to introduce a gender perspective into agricultural strategies, policies, programmes and projects.

In 1995 a major legislative leap was taken in relation to Nicaraguan women's rights to land. Provisions in its agrarian legislation that year encouraged the allocation and joint titling of land to couples, thereby recognizing married women's right to land. (Act 209/95, Article 32) Subsequently, joint titling became compulsory for married couples and for those living in stable de facto relationships. (Act 278/97, Article 49)

Another mechanism designed to ease some of the difficulties women face in gaining access to land ownership and security of tenure was the priority given to women heads of household under land distribution and titling programmes during the Sandinista period. This was a proactive inclusion mechanism, in that it sought to overcome the discrimination suffered by women heads of household in the past, and provided special protection for potentially more vulnerable rural homes. Additionally, the rights of all women to become beneficiaries of these measures were formalized. Agrarian Reform laws introduced during the 1980s and into the 1990s recognized equal rights for both sexes and, in theory, made it possible for them to become direct beneficiaries of land allocation, independent of their kinship position and without necessarily applying the head of household concept as a criterion for allocation. (Agrarian Reform Act, Decree 782/1981; Agricultural Cooperatives Act 84/1990; Agro-industrial Cooperatives Act 209/1995).

A recent comparative study of twelve Latin American countries (Deere and Leon 2001) showed that the number of women beneficiaries of land reform increased significantly in those countries that adopt and implement this type of inclusion mechanism.

The women-specific measures adopted in Nicaragua have benefited a greater proportion of the female population than countries where the policy assumption is that titling programmes are gender-neutral. (Deere and Leon 2000) The Nicaraguan figures speak for themselves: between 1979 and 1989, women accounted for 10 percent of the beneficiaries of property titles, whereas between 1993 and 1996 - after joint titling was implemented - that figure rose to 31 percent.

However, sex-disaggregated data on land programme beneficiaries are few and far between, making it difficult to provide a comprehensive evaluation of the various methods used to strengthen women's right to land. What the limited data indicate is that while statutory reforms, and legal rules and regulations (where these exist), guaranteeing equal rights for men and women have in theory promoted women's access to land, in practice cultural factors persist in obstructing rural women from gaining equal access to productive resources. And in some cases, the formal legal recognition of women's right to land cannot be implemented for lack of regulations.

The agrarian reform programme in the 1960s and 1970s, and its gender implications

During President Somoza's period in office, Nicaragua's land tenure structure was characterised by a high level of consolidation. However, a certain amount of land was redistributed to those farmers who had been displaced during the fifties as a result of the expansion of export crops.

In the face of strong popular demand for land, the government passed the Agrarian Reform Act in 1973, and subsequently established IAN (the Nicaraguan Agrarian Institute) and INVIERNO (the Peasant Welfare Institute) to take charge of land distribution. A number of settlements, including a land settlement project on the agricultural frontier, were formed as a result. Still, towards the end of the 1970s, the fundamental problem of over-concentration of land in too few hands remained unresolved although 16 500 families had been allocated land through titling programmes. (Corral 1999)

There was no element of gender equality in the structure of land distribution or land tenure under this agrarian reform. The government did not take account of equal rights to land access for men and women, and land allocation programmes did not explicitly recognize women as beneficiaries under land distribution and titling schemes.

Furthermore, the legal system and the laws in force at the time offered little protection from the discrimination women faced. Labour sector laws did not guarantee equal conditions for men and women carrying out temporary harvesting jobs in agroindustry and consequently women were paid less than men. Inheritance laws did nothing to redress the imbalance of custom whereby male offspring inherited land whilst female offspring inherited the household goods. Cultural norms and social conventions even excluded women from basic methods of land access available to peasant people in the form of squatting (occupying national land) and leasing (renting).

Legal, institutional and land tenure changes under the agrarian reform of 1979 to 1990

With the arrival of the Sandinista government in June 1979, the question of equal access to land for men and women became a priority. The new government brought in a number of legal, institutional, organizational and ideological changes, which gave women greater access to land. Women could now be recognized as beneficiaries of agrarian reform in their own right and gain direct access to land, rather than being restricted to indirect access to land that was dependent on being a member of a beneficiary family.

The 1981 Agrarian Reform Act (Decree No.782/1981, amended by Act No.14/1986) is acknowledged as one of the most forward-looking in Latin America in the way that it integrates women in selecting its beneficiaries. This Act recognized women's right to be direct beneficiaries of land allocation and did not apply the head of household criterion in its selection procedure. The 1981 Cooperatives Act (Decree No.826, 1981) encouraged women's participation in agrarian reform by recognizing equal rights, without sex discrimination, stating that the general objective of the cooperatives was to encourage women to participate fully, specifically targeting their involvement in the economic and social management of the cooperatives.

One of the main features of this agrarian reform was the confiscation of land belonging to the large estates, which accounted for one fifth of all agricultural land in the country. About 2 000 estates were confiscated under Confiscation Decrees No.3/1979, No.38/1979 and No.329/1980. Most of this land became part of the new APP (Área de Propiedad del Pueblo - People's Property Area) state enterprises where men and women farmers were employed as farm workers. Land was subsequently confiscated from large and medium-sized producers who left the country or abandoned their land following the enactment of Decree 760/1981. Further expropriations were carried out under the Agrarian Reform Act, approved under Decree No.782/1981. Land confiscation and the expropriation of the large estate owners also made it possible to redistribute land to make its ownership more democratic; and to strengthen the cooperative movement, setting up production cooperatives such as CAS (Sandinista agricultural cooperatives), CM (work collectives) and CSM (Surco Muerto collectives), and credit and services cooperatives.

This agrarian reform changed the land tenure structure considerably. At the end of 1988 the area covered by large farms had gone from 36 percent down to 7 percent of total land mass in Nicaragua, while the land mass of the reformed sector was substantially increased. Co-operatives held 58 percent of the land under the reformed sector, while state enterprises and people's property comprised 34 and 7 percent respectively. (Reydon & Romos 1996)

Mechanisms enabling women to gain access to land

In the above context, thousands of women farmers and workers found themselves in a position to gain direct access to land. Official data from the Rural Titling Office (OTR 1999:3) showed that between 1979 and 1989 women accounted for 9.7 percent of the agrarian reform's direct beneficiaries, 11 percent of production cooperative members and 8 percent of those allocated individual parcels. (FAO 1999:22)

These figures reveal that although the legislation contained in the Agrarian Reform Act was based on the principle of equal rights for men and women, the implementation of agrarian reform affected men and women differently. Various factors continued to prevent women from having direct access to land, including the patriarchal ideology and sexual division of labour prevalent in Nicaragua.

Women gained access to land mainly through cooperatives

The Cooperatives Act of September 1981 granted women the right to be members of cooperatives and, thanks to this change in the legislation, by 1984 women already accounted for 6 percent of cooperative members (Agurto 1997) rising to about 11 percent by 1989[24].

In 1982, 44 percent of Nicaraguan cooperatives had women members. A characteristic feature of the 1980s was the growing number of women joining cooperatives and grassroots social organizations. Part of the appeal was that, through cooperatives, women were able to gain access to land for cultivation, benefit from group credit and agricultural extension services, and play a part in decision-making.

However, women's participation in the cooperative movement, and their direct access to land under this scheme, was still hindered by patriarchal ideology and the sexual division of labour as well as by legal restrictions, such as the omission of the Cooperatives Act to grant legal inheritance rights to members' widows. Full integration into a cooperative was nearly impossible for a woman if there was an adult male residing in the home, as the male was always considered to be the head of the household and the parcel was allocated to him. In point of fact, most women cooperative members were either heads of household or un-married women living alone.

Few women received individual allocations of land

Once the 1981 Agrarian Reform Act came into force, the process of granting titles to land got underway. Land distributed to individuals under this scheme accounted for 20.7 percent of the reformed sector. However, only a small proportion of the beneficiaries of individual land titles were women, around 8 percent, according to data for 1984.

One significant constraint to land access under this system was that land titles were issued in the sole name of the applicant and not in the family's name. As already discussed, if there was a man in the household, the weight of cultural expectation within the family and within officialdom assumed that it was his right to apply. (This is why most of the women applying for individual titles were widows or un-married women living alone.) The male applicant was consequently the sole owner of any land allocated. Should he leave his wife, she lost her rights to the land.

Female workers gained access to land through state enterprises

Another way for women to gain access to land was through state enterprises which allowed them access to parcels for their own subsistence, either directly as agricultural workers, or indirectly as workers' wives. Even here, women came up against obstacles and constraints owing to traditional labour patterns whereby men get permanent employment whilst female labour tends to be employed seasonally and is, therefore, classified as temporary or casual employment. State enterprises followed the same pattern. Women accounted for 29 percent of 'temporary' workers in the state agricultural sector - mainly involved in seasonal work such as coffee, tobacco and cotton harvesting - with only 10 percent of women gaining permanent employment. Only those with permanent worker status were entitled to have access to a parcel of land (FAO 1992: 22 - 23)

Women's access to land during the period 1990 to 1997

The counter-reform and mechanisms for granting women access to land

In February 1990 the new UNO (Unión Nacional Opositora) government began preparing to reverse the agricultural policies of the previous government, in what became known as the counter-reform. This involved changing the land tenure structure and handing back land to its previous owners.

Initially, the gender issue was not taken into account in the design of government policies and programmes, with the result that the agricultural counter-reform accentuated gender inequality in the land tenure system. During the final stage of the period of change, the government introduced institutional and legislative changes and implemented programmes designed to raise the gender-awareness of officials in the agricultural sector, helping to improve women's rights to land once again.

Land distribution programmes

From April 1990, government land distribution continued albeit in a different direction from that of the previous government. State-owned land, or privately owned estates bought by the state for distribution purposes, was handed over to various people, many of whom were not of peasant origin. 66 percent of the distributed land was granted to soldiers demobilized after the war, while 19 percent was given to traditional applicants. Following this redistribution process, a certain re-consolidation of agricultural land was recorded. Female beneficiaries of this land distribution accounted for 6 percent of the total, although between 10 and 15 percent of demobilized soldiers were women.

This land-distribution picture then altered significantly under the titling process, under which women accounted for 16 percent of land beneficiaries between 1992 and 1994. Some 54 percent of these women received individual titles while the other 45 percent received joint or group titles.

The APP privatization process and subdivision of land by the cooperatives

The new government pursued a model promoting individual land rights in preference to cooperatives, organizing the privatisation of the APP (Área de Propiedad del Pueblo - People's Ownership Area) state-owned enterprises and corporations, and withdrawing support from production cooperatives set up under the previous government. The privatized areas were subdivided as follows: 43 percent of the land was handed back to its original owners; 25 percent was allotted to former soldiers, and workers were given shares in the remaining 33 percent, which now became known as the APT (Area de Propiedad de los Trabajadores - Workers' Ownership Area).

Women workers at the APP (around 35 percent of its permanent workers - as distinct from the 10 percent of permanent women workers in the state agricultural sector) did not benefit from the privatization programme and did not receive shares in the APT. Since women workers tended not to participate in decision-making in the state-owned estates, they were excluded from discussions on the privatization. By the end of the privatization process it is estimated that women accounted for only 24 percent of the APT's permanent workers. (Deere and Leon 2000: 201)

Furthermore, women did not have equal access to land in the new agricultural enterprises; they received lower pay and less fertile land than the men. Thousands of women were also discriminated against in the allocation of plots for their own subsistence, being deprived of the opportunity to be allocated these plots on the basis of their status as temporary workers.

Although cooperatives seemed to be a good way of gaining access to land under the previous government, the number of women involved in those that remained fell significantly. Many members began to leave the cooperatives even before the land was subdivided. This was due to the loss of state support for the sector and to internal problems, (Deere and Leon 1998) including opposition to female participation from male members of the cooperatives.

When the cooperatives' land was subdivided, women's weaker negotiating position tended to result in their receiving poorer quality land and smaller plots than the men. Many cooperatives lacked the funds needed to work all the land they controlled and began to sell off plots. However, owing to a lack of financial resources available to them and the difficulties in obtaining credit, few women were able to gain access to this land placed on the market.

Legalization programmes

These processes of redistribution and privatization of land gave rise to the need to regularize the land title situation, especially in view of the new government's aim to promote investment and boost the commercial market in land - an exercise in restoring confidence among the wealthy, which, in many cases, meant restoring land to those who had been expropriated by the previous government. The government established INRA (the National Agrarian Reform Institute) and charged it with introducing an agricultural land titling and registration programme with a view to legalizing the new distribution of land holdings.

One part of this legalization process involved a review of titles issued under Acts No.85, 86 and 88/1990 between February and April 1990, in other words the interim period between governments. Thousands of titles had been issued during this period, around one-third of which were now being contested under the new government's land restoration plans. Land covering an area of about 500 000 manzanas was eventually subject to compensation claims by the previous owners, and their land returned to them. Many of the women who had obtained land titles under the previous government consequently had their recently acquired property taken away from them.

Rebuilding gender equality

In 1993, during the latter part of the presidential term, the government approved a programme to raise awareness of gender issues among INRA officials, with the aim of improving women's conditions of access to land. Legislative changes were also introduced, including the Ownership Stability Act, which promoted greater equality of access to productive resources.

Article 32 of the Act introduced joint or co-titling, whereby agricultural land titles could be issued in the name of the couple. This had the effect of increasing the number of women to be counted as direct beneficiaries of the titling process.

Article 5 of the same Act grants priority access to credit for women. Despite this formal recognition of rights, few women could take up the bank loans on offer, as financial institutions required borrowers to be landowners or cooperative members. The government's response to women's limited access to institutional credit was to implement a funding programme to grant loans under non-traditional credit schemes. Women's take-up of this alternative credit was very variable, but the number and value of loans granted to women remained relatively low.

The government also made attempts to introduce a gender perspective in designing policies and programmes for the agricultural sector. INRA, established in 1991 to promote women's access to land, now introduced joint titling under Article 32 of Act 209/1995, by law making women direct beneficiaries of the land titling process, with effect from November 1995. It proceeded in 1996 to set up the Peasant Women's Unit as a means of promoting gender issues in all INRA's activities.

Under Decree No.56/1998 INRA became known as the OTR (Rural Titling Office). In September 2000, this institution approved a declaration of the principles of gender equality that emphasised the need to incorporate a gender perspective in all its policies, programmes, projects, strategies and action plans. (Ministerio de Hacienda y Crédito Público 2000)

Other governmental measures included the strengthening of INIM (the Nicaraguan Women's Institute), which was established in 1987 under Decree No.293/1987 and had been working in support of the rural female population since 1993. INIM was given greater independence and an advisory board was set up comprised of members of civil society. Since 1996 it has stepped up its efforts to promote women's access to land, credit and technical assistance.

In 1997, INIM was the driving force in establishing CMyDR (the Inter-institutional Committee on Women and Rural Development) under Decree No.57/1997. The aim of CMyDR is to introduce a gender perspective into the agricultural sector's environment and natural resource policies, programmes, projects and strategies. The CMyDR committee includes the following public agricultural institutions:

Between 1992 and 1996, as a result of the government's new gender-informed policy and the enforcement of the legislation on joint titling, 9 618 women - in other words, 25.43 percent of all beneficiaries of land titling programmes - benefited under INRA's three types of titling schemes (individual, joint and cooperative). It must be pointed out that, despite the fact that 60 percent of the titles issued between 1992 and 1996 were joint titles, they did not always benefit women. Owing to the ambiguity of the term 'joint' (mancomunado in Spanish) which literally refers to 'two persons' in the family unit and not necessarily to 'couples', Article 32 of the Joint Titling Act (209/1995) tended to promote joint titling for men (fathers and sons) rather than couples. Nevertheless, 40 percent of the individual titles issued under this scheme went to women and women were included in 21 percent of joint titles.

The government subsequently amended the legislation on joint titling for couples, to tighten it up. In 1997 it passed a new Property Act No.278/1997. Article 49 of that Act states that - for the sole purpose of that Act - agrarian reform titles issued to the head of the family shall also be understood to include the spouse or companion in a stable de facto union. This is a significant step forward as it recognizes the right to land of a large number of women who are part of a union that falls outside of the legal definition of marriage and who, until then, had been excluded from land titling programmes.

Women in de facto unions still have hurdles to overcome in obtaining land titles: their companions can refuse to present themselves to a competent authority so that the union can be recognized, as required by law; and the officials responsible for issuing the titles continue to prefer to give them to male applicants.

The land market - the present-day challenge

In recent years, Nicaragua's agricultural sector has been affected by structural adjustment policies, the removal of agricultural subsidies and market liberalization. The gradual relinquishing of state control over land tenure, ownership and subsidies indicate that the state's distributive role is being phased out in favour of allowing free rein to the market.

In Nicaragua, most of the land being bought and sold belongs, or used to belong, to the reformed sector. Although the quantity of this land sold to individual farmers is not known, it is clear that land is being privatized and consolidated. Parcels of land that once belonged to cooperatives or were issued in the 1990s to demobilized soldiers and ex-combatants, many of whom had no farming background, are now being sold to private individuals.

The current trend is towards a more active market in land. (Blanco 2000) Agrarian reform programmes, based on expropriation and the purchase and distribution of land by the state over the past 30 years, are now few and far between. Land titling programmes are currently being reviewed in the light of the new free market model, and government efforts are being directed towards instituting security of ownership and fostering the market in land.

In the context of the free market, the issues for women have to do with the legalization of property titles, and whether women (and small farmers in general) can realistically participate in the land market given their economic situation. Despite women's significant progress towards attaining access and rights to land in recent years, these obstacles remain.

The future of land access for women in Nicaragua

Nicaragua's legislation governing equal access to land for women and men is relatively progressive. The introduction of joint titling and the establishment, under Article 49 of Act 278, of the OTR Gender Unit are two of the measures promoting land titling for women.

The significance of these measures is that they present women with a means to become economically independent, and they facilitate access to other productive resources. At the same time they reveal the level of sustained effort required if equal opportunities for men and women are to be achieved. Although women have obtained land through titling programmes, the data show that they have been discriminated against in terms of the area of land received. OTR data for 1999 show that while women holders of individual titles own plots of between 0.5 and 10 manzanas, men have between 0.5 and 20 manzanas; and where joint titles were issued in women's names the area of land allocated was between 0.98 and 14 manzanas, whereas the areas handed over when joint titles were issued in men's names were between 16 and 32 manzanas.

At the present time, the commercial market in land seems to be the principal way to obtain agricultural land, with male peasant farmers already engaging in the buying and selling, or leasing, of land. The main difficulties facing women who wish to participate in these commercial activities are a lack of credit and insecure land tenure.

In this context, women's right to land can be strengthened by promoting land titling and access to the market in land by means of facilitating access to credit. Other support measures include fostering rural women's associations and organizations, and taking all steps necessary to strengthen women's role as producers and managers of natural resources.

Progress in gender equity in the issue of agrarian title deeds

Recent OTR data showed that between 1992 and 1996 the government issued 23 067 agricultural land titles, corresponding to 37 810 direct beneficiaries. Of these direct beneficiaries, 9 618 - or 25.43 percent - were women. Between 1997 and 2000 the government issued 10 268 agricultural land titles, corresponding to 19 322 direct beneficiaries, of whom 8 141 - or 42 percent - were women. Compared with data from the 1980s, when women accounted for only 8 percent of the direct beneficiaries to titling programmes, it is clear that over the last ten years there has been a significant improvement in gender equality with regard to land rights. This has been the case particularly following the enactment of the joint titling laws.

It is, of course, crucial that women's right to land is recognized. It is equally crucial to be aware that, in practice, this has little bearing on women's access to land and other productive resources such as credit, technical assistance and support services. Collateral measures are needed to ensure that women are recognized as producers and that those who have gained access to productive resources can effectively use them.

Lack of access to credit and insecurity of legal land tenure: factors preventing access to land

Women face a number of disadvantages in engaging with the commercial market in land. Some of the more frequently encountered ones include lack of access to institutional credit, lack of experience in or knowledge of the negotiation process (Deere and Leon 2000) owing to patriarchial cultural practices, which prevent women from participating in entrepreneurial and productive roles, and lack of land tenure security.

Women are often unable to legalize titles they are issued under agrarian reform because they lack the funds needed to cover the registration fee. In cases of land tenure conflicts, women generally lose their land because they are unable to pay legal costs. The buying and selling of land by male farmers aggravates insecurity of tenure, as these transactions are often made on an informal basis.

Gaining access to credit for the purchase or lease of land and other business purposes, by means of establishing special lines of credit or land banks, appears to be the only viable way forward in this context. This will enable women to make their land tenure situation more secure, facilitate their access to the resources needed to legalize title to land, and make it possible to pay for legal support in the event of conflict over tenure.

It should not be forgotten that land security requires ongoing access to funds, for the administration and use of the land; it is not just a question of gaining legal title to it.

Strengthening women's organizations

Organized action by the women's movement has been crucial to women's improved access to land. Indeed, in the 1980s women gained access to land mainly through the cooperative movement which enabled women to engage in agriculture on a more independent basis than previously. The efforts of women's organizations such as AMNLAE (Associacion de Mujeres Nicaraguenses Luisa Amanda Espinoza), FEMUPROCAN (Federacion de Mujeres Productoras del Campo de Nicaragua) and UNAG (the Gender Unit of the National Farmers' Union) raised awareness of women's problems and mobilized grassroots support around specific gender issues, encouraging the formal recognition of women's rights and access to land.

In the current phase of land market liberalization, rural organizations have an important role to play in supporting small farmers, both men and women, as potential applicants for land, either on an individual basis or within the framework of their organizations. Women also have an important role to play in strengthening their ownership of land, by becoming aware of their rights and those of their communities with regard to land tenure and sustainable land use. In the context of land market functioning, individual small farmers, both men and women face a lot of restrictions to participate in market transactions, due to the lack of resources; but it is assumed that being associated small farmers and in particular women might be able to buy or lease land with the financial support of their organisations, either small loans or through collective credit, or their organisations might as well act as mutual societies.


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[21] Inheritance is the process whereby ownership of land and other goods is transferred from one generation to another and between members of one family. It is one of the ways h people gain access to property.
[22] The Conference specifically recommended adopting legislation to ensure that men and women enjoy full legal capacity with respect to personal and property rights, including the right to acquire, administer, enjoy, dispose of and inherit property. (Paragraphs 120 - 130)
[23] Although this article marks the most important turning point in terms of women's rights to land, access to land is considered only in the context of agrarian reform programmes and not as a general right.
[24] There is some debate about this percentage, arising from the number of cooperatives taken into account by each survey. Figures produced prior to the Sandinista government showed that in early 1989 only 8.6 percent of CAS members were women, whereas a study by UNAG (the National Livestock Farmers' Union) suggested the higher proportion of around 11 percent.

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